Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Bush

We have visited several villages in the bush. Never knowing who we will meet along the way or what the situation really is until we get there (or sometimes how we will get there), it is always an adventure.

We have gone to one village 3 or 4 times now. It is called Isalie. It is an enchanted place built on the steep hillsides. Most of the homes are $5 mud brick shacks with million dollar views. With a pristine landscape, red mud that has been patted completely flat, and children’s laughter echo's off the terraced hillsides. Many times I have to pinch myself to make sure the idyllic setting it is real. Well until we see the soldiers’ camp that is. You see the FRDC (Congolese government troops) have moved onto the tallest hillside overlooking the village and “Garbin” (the valley) below. From a vista as close as I dare to go, I can see one main brick compound in the middle of the green rolling hill with makeshift A-frame tents big enough for two people dotted across the hillside. The troops are here to keep other rebel factions out of the area, but in the meantime they are raping women, looting the market, beating the husbands when they take everything the family has, and recruiting young boys to fight. The soldiers foot path off the mountain runs right behind some of the COPERMA member’s huts.

Shocked by the proximity these members have daily with the soldiers; I could not help, but remember a line from a bible verse I learned at Lutheran school. “Ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”. It goes on to say, “Thy staff and thy rod comfort thee”. The only problem is that these girls literally live in the shadow of rape and death, but when I meet the 13 year old survivor I see that even God is not able to protect them. They have to go each day to the “source” to get water, to the forest to collect firewood, and walk to their land miles away to cultivate crops always running into soldiers along the way.

We finally made it to the new village only when one of the COPERMA staff takes a personal loan from a friend. More shocking than any village we have visited. The soldiers have been though five times and taken everything. The crops, the firewood, the women, the clothes, and the dignity. As we wait in the most private room we can find, the interviewees come in one after another. It seems each time another walks in the door they are younger and younger. Some able to smile and look at us. Some completely shattered. So angry, embarrassed, or vacant from the experience they physically turn away from us and look at the wall during the interview.

One girl knows the name of the soldier. He kidnapped her back to his camp and made her his “wife”, in his mind this forced marriage is a lesser evil than rape. Two soldiers took turns on her for a week. Another girl in the group was not taken as a wife and raped by 10 soldiers for the week. After about eight days the girls were sent to the market to buy food, but they ran away instead. The soldier that took her, his name is “Justin” (she heard other people talking to him). Some of the other girls and women who were captured that day were still there when she fled and she has not seen them since. We are worried they are still there. Even with the name of the commander, the soldier, and the location we can’t go get the women/girls who are there. Our only hope is to call Amy’s friend at the UN, but we cannot get a hold of him. Even if we could the UN here is so overwhelmed I am not sure they have the willpower to deal with this. I think of the last time we visit the UN headquarters in Lubero and how all the troops were in gym clothes playing volleyball. Everyone needs R&R and the entire Congo is too big for any one organization to police, but I really hope when they hear about something like this they can move through the bureaucracy and act.

Before we leave the village we dine on white rice and some very tasty salty cabbage doused in palm oil. Luckily, it is not a repeat of last time white rice and goat intestines. It is hard to complain when you see that these people have nothing and you cannot refuse a meal, but they really do not have the means to be feeding all of us.

Always racing against the setting sun, while I want to be here these extreme events have become so normal (interviews with survivors, dirt bike rides, meeting demobilized child soldiers, starving children, and families who have nothing) it has almost become monotonous. Or maybe is my soul trying to numb my conscious mind so I will not become completely overwhelmed. Just about the time I feel ready to check out of the Congo, an adorable child’s eyes will light up at the sight of me. His lips move and I hear a barely audible “Muzungu”. He stands reverently on the side of the road. His face look as if has just seen the last golden unicorn on Earth and he is in awe of what he has witnessed. The local women will blush and laugh as I return local greetings. As we pass the market where we buy our fruit, the entire market, all 200-300 vendors, raise their hands and shout greetings as we zoom past on the dirt bike.

With all the hardship and human evil that exists, it is the heart of the Congo’s people that keep drawing me extend my stay here.

Back at the Crossiers Amy, Alanna, and I hang out on the porch. Amy has a cigarette in one hand and a beer in another. Alana is strumming her ukulele and drinking tea. I am downloading files on my computer and having a glass of wine. It is the night before the full moon, the air is damp and misty and we all have on jackets. We talk about how intense the last few days of interviews have been. Amy says she has never head of this before…women who have escaped and knowing the location of the others. She tried to call her friend at the UN again, but to no avail.

Tonight we go to bed knowing there are still some women somewhere out there in the bush that have been captured and serving as concubines for soldiers and there is nothing we can do.

It is truly an awful feeling.

I decide I need to retire early to my room just to relax and veg out. As I say my goodnights, Amy says, “I don’t want to worry you, but you should hide your electronics. A parish about 40km away was pillaged last night”. But don’t worry no one was hurt or raped, just robbed”.

Walking down the hall to my room I grabbed a large can of insecticide, I am sure it can act like mace in a pinch. I lock the door and secure it with a chair. I hide my hard drives and money. I go to be fully clothed in case I have to leave quickly. Thinking of the women I cannot save and the possibility of soldiers visiting my home I listen to every bump in the night. Tossing and turning my sleep is deep and dark.

I wake up at 6am to see the light of day, thankful to have made it through unscathed. As I open my window the morning light reveals the assortment of weapons surrounding my bed, a heavy glass bottle of alter wine (the brothers bottle) that I figured may daze someone if hit on the head, by my pillow my defunct Nicaraguan switchblade that can barely cut an orange, the can of insecticide, the cockeyed chair barricading the door, my headlamp, and gold cell phone by my head. The assortment or blockages and random weapons across my room looks like the aftermath of a day of play in a child’s fort.

Would any of these things really help me if soldiers visit our compound? I am not really sure, but very glad I did not have to find out.

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